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London is full of life and greener than many think.
  • Are sparrows trying to tell us something

    We're all aware of the old canary down a coalmine story. Miners would drop tools and flee if their caged canaries fell from their perch as it indicated the presence of poisonous gas.

    Well, there is now a European study underway to establish if the decline of our common house sparrow, down 68 % between 1994 and 2009 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data), is in any way linked with air pollution.

    We know that a lack of food and nesting space are part of the reason, and have long suspected other factors of having an impact. Now the European Commission has published a preliminary paper on the subject. They've found that house sparrows living in highly polluted urban locations have significantly lower haemoglobin and anti-oxidant capacities, which they claim indicates the birds have been exposed to high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Haemoglobin is an important part of red blood cells. In birds and most other animals, it transports oxygen from the lungs around the body.So, do you have a gas mask in my size? Image courtesy of Mike Lawrence.

    This comes as a group of UK MP's recommend schools, care homes and hospitals should not be built near main roads to avoid "tens of thousands" of premature deaths caused by what they describe as the "invisible killer" of air pollution.

    The Commons Environmental Audit Committee chair, Joan Walley says officially 29,000 people a year in the UK die as a result of air pollution, but that doesn't take account of NO2 levels from diesel engines. Another independent UK Government report due out shortly estimates there is an additional 30,000 deaths a year caused by NO2 in the air. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson's official estimates put the death toll from air pollution (not including NO2) at 4,267 in 2008.

    The implications of the EC report on house sparrows is that they may be a natural indicator of pollution which we've overlooked. While the findings are in line with what we know of air pollution, it's too early to say whether it's a contributory factor in the decline of house sparrows.

  • Square Meal – why we need a new approach to food and farming

    The Government’s Farmland Bird Indicator tracks the fortunes of a range of bird species which live and breed in lowland farmland, such as turtle dove, skylark and yellowhammer. Its recent publication revealed yet another drop in numbers.

    The term ‘Farmland bird indicator’ sounds rather dry and technical and the story that this indicator tells is perhaps hard for many of us to relate to. This is because the story is one of loss – loss on such an enormous scale that it is hard to visualize, but which has seen the transformation of the countryside in a generation.

    Throughout the UK, over 44 million pairs of breeding birds have gone in less than 50 years.

    They have vanished at the rate of one pair every minute.  

    Nowhere have these losses been more pronounced than on the land which produces our food.  And it isn’t only birds that are disappearing. Last year’s State of Nature report, an important stock take of UK wildlife, found that for many groups, the picture is bleak if things continue as they are. Despite the clear evidence that changes in agriculture have been a major cause of wildlife declines, successive governments have failed to get to grips with this issue or stand up to the vested interests that have a stranglehold over food and farming policy.

    The recent Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform process is a classic example. It’s estimated by some that the average UK household spends over £400 paying for the CAP each year, but precious little of this money is directed towards those farmers, many on the edge of commercial survival, who are doing most for society as a whole. The recent reform was a great opportunity to change this in favour of farmers doing their bit to support wildlife. Instead the beneficiaries of the status quo prevailed and the €1 billion a week of taxpayers’ money spent on the CAP across the EU will deliver little in the way of public benefit. 

    Most frustrating of all has been the emergence of the ‘food security’ argument that claims the priority is to maximise UK food production to feed a growing global population.. which means there isn’t room for wildlife. This argument is fallacious 

    The Square Meal report

    on many levels and ignores the fact that many people are already unable to access adequate, nutritious food despite there being an oversupply[1]. Clearly this is not a problem of there being insufficient food to go around. Yet there is little political will to address the environmental degradation and inequality of resource usage that actually jeopardises food security, especially for the most vulnerable.

    This is why we are excited by a new initiative which saw a range of organisations coming together to call for a re-framing and widening of the debate on food and farming, so that all of us can have a say in how the UK is farmed.  

    'Square Meal: why we need a new recipe for farming, wildlife, food and public health’ is a new report published by a collaboration of ten UK organisations with expertise across food, environment, farming and health. It calls for stronger government leadership and an integrated approach recognising food and farming are central to many of the pressing social and environmental challenges we face.

    Most importantly, it provides a positive vision for what our food and farming system could deliver if the right decisions are made. An approach based on improving health; reconnecting with food and nature; good food for all; sustainable, resilient farming; and a return of colour and sound to the countryside.

    Read the report and have your say at the Food Research Collaboration website.

    [1] World Food Programme (2014). What causes hunger? 

    This is a guest blog, written by the RSPB's Senior Agriculture Policy Officer, Abi Burns.

  • New homes to be built on Richmond Park*

    Greater London has some magnificent places .. Centrally, there is St Paul's Cathedral, the Tate Modern, Trafalgar Square and of course the London Eye.

    Side-on view of the London Eye (c) Tim Webb

    There are also open and natural spaces such as Hyde Park, Epping and Hainault forests, Hampstead Heath, Ingrebourne Marshes, the mighty Thames, Wimbledon Common and London's biggest green lung, Richmond Park.

    Epping Forest

    In fact there are 36 places designated as being Sites of Special Scientific Interest [SSSI] in Greater London. This means they are protected from disturbance and development because of their value to nature and society. In reality, they may soon be as vulnerable to development as any other location, thanks to a decision by Medway councillors.

    They have rubber stamped planning permission for 5,000 new homes to be built on an ex Ministry of Defence site in Kent called Lodge Hill, parts of which are designated SSSI land because it is a breeding site for nightingales. This may not seem a lot, but 1% of the UK's entire population can be found at Lodge Hill. The species is vanishing and building on a site where 1% of the nation's favourite songbird breeds would seriously exacerbate that decline. There are options which Medway councillors could consider to reach their obligatory housing target without all the implications of Lodge Hill. 

    If their decision goes unchallenged, it sets a national precedent leaving all other SSSI sites effectively fair game for development. London's glorious Richmond Park could feasibly be transformed into a housing estate. The RSPB supports moves to build homes and infrastructure. We believe this can be done while saving, and often enhancing special places and wildlife; the things that make up our fabled green and pleasant land and provide natural spaces within our urban settings. We vehemently oppose Medway's decision.

    We have written to Eric Pickles, the Minister responsible for housing, urging him to "call-in" this planning decision for a judicial review. This should allow full consideration of the facts and options. Mr Pickles will be making a decision over the next few days. We have until Thursday 25 of September to show him the strength of public support for precious places like Lodge Hill, Hampstead Heath, Gungrog Flash in Powys, the Avon Gorge, Bodmin Moor, Manchester's Nob End, Aberdeen's Pittodrie, Buttermere and Scafell Pikes in Cumbria, Rathlin Island, the Ribble Estuary or North Yorkshire's Three Dykes .. to name just a dozen.

    Hampstead Heath looking towards the city

    This is an occasion where volume matters. Please add your name to our e-action showing Eric Pickles that people in the UK are passionate about protecting special places and the wildlife which help define our national character.

    * Signing our e-action will save amazing places like Richmond Park ... so PLEASE do add your name.